Jeanelle Brisbane: Building on-island capacity as the foundation for conservation success

For Black History Month, the British Ecological Society (BES) journals are celebrating the work of Black ecologists from around the world and sharing their stories. The theme for UK Black History Month this year is Time for Change: Action Not Words. Jeanelle Brisbane—a wildlife ecologist at WildDominique and the Forestry, Wildlife and Parks Division, Dominica—shares her story below.

How did you get into ecology?

Surveying for reptiles and amphibians in the volcanically active Valley of Desolation, Dominica (part of the Morne Trois Pitons World Heritage Site)

My name is Jeanelle Brisbane and my main research interests are Islands, Community science, and Herpetofauna. Ever since I was 5, I felt a spark inside of me and I just knew from there that I wanted to work with wild animals. Growing up in what is dubbed “the Nature Island of the Caribbean” (Dominica or Waitukubuli as it is originally called), fostering this passion of mine came easy. Everywhere I turned, the island provided me with impeccable biological and geological diversity, both on land and under the sea.

As a little girl, my parents would take us camping by the Governor River in the middle of this beautiful forest, with water so clean we could drink straight from it and soil so rich we ate directly from the trees. Snakes, lizards, frogs, birds, bats, and all roamed freely in our space and my family taught me how to respect rather than fear them. From there, I became fascinated with learning about the fauna and flora I saw, which was supplemented and fueled by the influence of networks like Animal Planet and National Geographic.

Governor River in Dominica where my family spent the weekends

However, despite being from the “Nature Island”, it wasn’t until after I left home that I discovered what ecology even was. At first, I thought working with animals meant I had to be a veterinarian until a deep dive on the internet for the right university program led me to the world of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida, which later led to my MRes in Tropical Forest Ecology from Imperial College London. Gaining the experience of working with different fauna groups, and getting the opportunity to consider conservation challenges and research innovative solutions in multiple countries, I realized that my calling was to return to my region and do my best to be a representative voice for our endemic and endangered species. I saw it as vital to build on-island capacity to pass that spark on to the next generation of conservationists. This goal of mine was further validated by the passage of Hurricane Maria in 2017—the strongest Atlantic storm on record to make landfall on Dominica.

What are you researching/working on right now?

Hurricane Maria exacerbated many conservation challenges in Dominica. With biosecurity at an all-time low, we saw the introduction of several new species—some of which have caused native species populations to crash on other islands. Then, there was the overnight alteration of our forests which forced our wildlife to forage on farms, thereby increasing human-wildlife conflicts. These issues were sadly compounded by an increase in poaching as people went into survival mode. With Dominica being the last stronghold for some of our regional species, the pressure was on to mobilise as many resources as possible to monitor and manage our native species.

In 2018, I founded WildDominique—one of the island’s conservation NGOs—with the aim of building on-island capacity for current species monitoring and future rapid response measures. We work mostly with culturally unfavourable species—generally herpetofauna—with the hope of restoring the original mindset of our first people to respect and not fear these species. Our work consists of weekly population monitoring of native and non-native frogs, iguanas, and anoles, alongside the collection of morphometric, dietary, and genetic data collection. We also work in the field of policy development, and hands-on engagement with the community. Recently, we launched our biodiversity-friendly livelihood initiative working with farmers and tour guides to develop their products around the conservation of our natural resources for their benefit and the benefit of wildlife. Our next goal is to introduce conservation into the school curriculum across the island to foster pride in our natural resources and empower the next generation of conservationists.

The Dominican Mountain Chicken Frog team re-claying nest boxes within the frog enclosure in Montserrat © Luke Brannon – Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

What do you enjoy most about your work or ecology in general?

Working as an ecologist allows you to imagine the world through the eyes of many different species and takes you to places that most people do not have the opportunity to experience. Ecology is to witness life in its purest form, and, as an ecologist, we have the honour of translating that beauty for others to appreciate and protect.

What I enjoy most about this field is sharing that beauty with others and watching as they become fascinated by the life surrounding us—the musical concert of crickets, frogs, and birds, the fragrance of plants in bloom, the colourful exhibition of butterflies moving in and out of the various shades of green and brown. We are re-establishing the bridge between the human and natural world, and when both the community we work within and wildlife get to thrive, there is no better reward than that.

Looking for?

Training farmers on biodiversity-friendly farming techniques for long-term protection of the island’s wildlife and livelihoods

As an early career conservationist/ecologist—and the only permanent, active ecologist on my island— what is most dear to me is the opportunity to grow a community of ecologists who can share knowledge, experiences, networks, and other resources that could greatly help propel conservation action in Dominica and the greater Caribbean Region. With over a fifth of my island managed as a Protected Area, and over half of the island still being forested, Dominica has become the last stronghold for several regionally endemic species that are in need of conservation intervention. Therefore, it is imperative that we build the human and financial capacity to conserve and protect while the chance of success remains high.

Who are your role models—within ecology and beyond?

The author, Jeanelle Brisbane

Too often, the groundwork of black ecologists gets overlooked or overshadowed by others. So, for this month, I would like to highlight my mentor, Ms Jacqueline Andre, whom I’ve had the absolute pleasure of witnessing taking on the momentous task of managing Dominica’s National Parks with respect, humility, determination, and love for the field and country. She has ingrained in me the lessons needed to navigate the field as someone of colour, as a woman, and as someone from a Small Island Developing State, without having to compromise my voice. Her existence in the field and position in regional organisations have been a beacon of hope for many of us, allowing us to believe in our capability to one day achieve the same and beyond.

The Caribbean is filled with dedicated ecologists who are working away, day and night, to halt the loss of our wildlife and habitats all while navigating the cultural, social, political, economic, and environmental challenges of our region. Thank you to these amazing groups of people like the fauna team at NEPA-Jamaica, the Anguilla National Trust, and the Environmental Awareness Group-Antigua, for pushing through to give our Mother Nature a voice and for breaking barriers to build the capacity of our region.

Enjoyed the blogpost and want to reach out to Jeanelle? Contact her via Twitter or email!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s